Family Atmosphere Wins Over Recruits at Ohio State

By Kyle Rowland on July 3, 2014 at 8:45a

CINCINNATI — When Ezekiel Elliott committed to Ohio State in 2013, it ended a long, grueling – and sometimes painful – recruiting process. Parents Stacy and Dawn were both successful athletes at Missouri, Ezekiel’s home state, making an already difficult decision tougher.

But comfort and ease led Elliott to Columbus and Ohio State. Relationships with the coaching staff grew stronger as National Signing Day approached, contributing to Elliott’s move from Missouri. On Wednesday, five-star linebacker Justin Hilliard described a similar situation.

“The thing that separates the schools are the relationships you build around campus with the players and coaches,” he said. “I got to know the players like Raekwon [McMillan] and [Ryan] Shazier and some of the other greats.

“The comfortability rate for me at Ohio State was high, and I have always been an Ohio State fan. It was a pretty easy choice. My room is decorated in Ohio State gear. Even the commits there are very close knit. A lot of them have reached out to me.”

Hilliard may hail from inside Ohio’s borders, but the family culture inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center is what set the Buckeyes apart from his other suitors – Iowa, Notre Dame and Alabama. The calm, relaxed feeling he felt at Ohio State was enough to separate Hilliard from his real family, or at least his brother, C.J., a freshman running back at Iowa.

“I just told him to follow his heart and go with his gut,” C.J., said.

The past few years for the Hilliard family have been spent traversing the country visiting college campuses. Justin was determined to find the right fit – academically, athletically and comfort level. It’s not uncommon for prospects to get caught up in the process and make commitments based on emotion during visits.

Rash decisions are not part of Hilliard’s makeup. Ohio’s top 2015 recruit heard every program’s best sales pitch, but he never bit on promises or other baseless words. Instead, he opted for the family atmosphere.  

“It’s been a long and hard process, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Hilliard said.

His parents quickly learned the value of family at Ohio State. Conversations with Urban Meyer were like talking to a friend and felt natural. Each visit up 71 North brought more reassurance that Ohio State was the right destination for Hilliard. Stacy Elliott had similar feelings during Ezekiel’s recruitment.

Recruiting features broken promises, snake oil salesmen and amateur psychics. Stacy Elliott was leery throughout the process and stayed grounded, not allowing sentiment to enter into the talking points.

“When we met Coach Urban Meyer, he really stressed how he wanted to continue producing a family environment at Ohio State,” he said. “To be honest, as a parent, when we first went there, I thought that would be almost impossible because of the magnitude of the program – the security, your son being whisked off to places you can’t even go. At other schools, I could go in the locker room. I’ve never been in the locker room at Ohio State. That’s sacred ground.

“After Ezekiel came to Ohio State, I had an ongoing relationship with Coach Meyer. I work with youths, and I noticed how much time he put into programs and situations to better his student-athletes.”

The culture Meyer established trickled into the families of players. That environment is evident on game days when the Elliotts, the Apples, the Bosas and other family members join together at tailgates and put football discussions aside. They talk about life – kids, parents, jobs.

And it doesn’t conclude when football season ends. There’s constant communication on Twitter and group text messages. The welcoming nature surrounding the football program has led the Elliotts to spend part of the year at a residence in Ohio. It’s something Stacy said would never have happened if not for the atmosphere.  

“Coach Meyer tells us as parents and families to take ownership. So me and my family have led the charge in doing that, and it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “Because I’m in Columbus a lot, I’ve become like an uncle to a lot of these young men. I did not know that my presence would be that much needed.”

When it comes to Meyer and running backs coach Stan Drayton, Elliott said the relationship isn’t based off of Ezekiel’s talents. It exists because Meyer and Drayton are genuine friends.

“I have my personal opinions, we all want our child to play more,” Stacy said. “But I told Coach Meyer and Coach Drayton no matter what happens between my son and them, we will always be friends. I believe in what they do and what they stand for.”

The former Missouri Tiger now refers to himself as a Buckeye and was decked out in an Ohio State shirt on Wednesday. Hilliard and five-star defensive end Jashon Cornell opted for hats, the piece of clothing of choice for recruits. In line with the family talk, it was no coincidence that Hilliard and Cornell made their announcements on the same day.

The duo settled on the Buckeyes in recent weeks and charted a path that includes recruiting other players to join them at Ohio State. While Damien Harris and Matthew Burrell might find Hilliard and Cornell convincing, Carl Hilliard, Justin’s father, spoke highly of the feeling he got from talking to Meyer, Luke Fickell and Kerry Coombs.

“It was really a tag team approach,” Carl said. “We knew about Coach Meyer and what he had done in football, but our goal was to find out truly what he was about. They really showed us the support system.”

That includes Stacy Elliott, someone Carl referred to as one of his new “best friends.”

St. Xavier head coach Steve Specht is no stranger to recruiting – or Meyer. Coaching at a Division I powerhouse exposes him to courting in major college football every recruiting cycle. And he happened to be coached by Meyer during his own career at St. Xavier in the mid-1980s.

“Coach Meyer is a very genuine person,” Specht said. “He has been through all of the battles. Yeah, he can pull his rings out. He can play a lot of different roles because he has been there and done that. But the one thing that is different about Coach Meyer is his passion for the game and his fiery nature. Kids feed off that and love that. I think that had an impact for Justin.”

From Elliott in 2013 to Hilliard in 2015 and many more to come, Meyer has fostered the ultimate players atmosphere. In a results-oriented business, steady top-five recruiting classes are evidence that Ohio State’s winning over trust one family at a time. 


Comments Show All Comments

Tater_Schroeder's picture

Awesome article! Every story I read about the Elliott's, the more I admire that family. The world needs more Stacy and Dawns in it. 

Now this year will be the year Ezekiel can prove his talents on the field! Can't wait!


+15 HS
Buckeye Knight's picture

Agreed.  And that is something I love about Urban while here at OSU, he is bringing in some players that are great people, not just great players.  Kids who seem to have their heads on straight and good students.

+3 HS
chemicalwaste's picture

Can we get a few more upvotes here?

+1 HS
seafus26's picture

It'll becool to see the Hilliards go at it one day LB vs RB. My bet on who will win that collision is the one trained by coach Mick.

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

+4 HS
Quickturtle's picture

Great article. The longer Urban is here, the luckier I feel to be a Buckeye during this period. In the midst of trials and controversy around sports, we keep building an atmosphere, a family, and continuing a tradition of excellence. We're in a pretty golden period of OSU sports. We're getting really spoiled, and I LOVE IT.

Great day to be a Buckeye.

+6 HS
BUCKSOMIES's picture

Love the family atmosphere surrounding the program.  It's even better that the players family's are also buying in.  Yes once again we can say that's it's UFM's fault.

fear_the_nut70's picture

I think they have the same sorta of environment in Gainesville under Muschump.  True, their techniques are a bit different:

+1 HS
DMcDougal24's picture

I enjoyed your column very much Kyle. The Hilliard recruitment was not an easy one to follow. All of the visits he took over the last year+ to campuses like Notre Dame, Michigan, Oklahoma, Alabama, etc., had be convinced that he was more likely to leave the state of Ohio than he was to stay in it. Little did I know that he was essentially looking for reasons not to go to Ohio State.

The Elliotts seem like such genuine people. Ohio State got much more than a great player when they received his signature last year.

+2 HS
Tater_Schroeder's picture

The Elliotts seem like such genuine people. 

It can't be put any better than this. Well said. 


+3 HS
Burnsy's picture

I love hearing this stuff and seeing great kids commit to tOSU. Sounds like Meyer is recruiting not only talent but also good character kids all while keeping the families involved. 

OSU_ALUM_05's picture

wait ... I thought the only "family atmosphere" in the B1G was at TTUN ... this must be some kind of mistake ...cold-hearted baby eater Urban Meyer can't be a good, family-oriented guy .... let's go to the TTUN family for comment:

oh hell ... nevermind

Yeti's have feelings too.

+3 HS
OSUpawn's picture

I don't know Eze personally but following how he handled his recruitment and hearing stories of how classy his parents are, I know we got a special player.  One that will succeed long after his football career is over.

I believe the SEC players put their pants on one leg at a time like we do.

Poison nuts's picture

Great stuff Kyle - really good read!

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+2 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

Thanks Kyle nice read.  Juice for the whole family.  Next man up! 

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

CC's picture

With Hilliard's commitment (and several others over the last few years) does this mean there isn't an issue getting players from Cincy?

Kyle Rowland's picture

Writing about that very subject for tomorrow.

cinserious's picture

We are definitely on the right path recruiting in Cincinnati. The studs from Moeller, St. Xavier, Anderson, Colerain, Princeton, etc will definitely take notice from here on out. Landing Hilliard will go a long way with that. I still don't feel we get real strong with Elder though, they have a deep-rooted Westside, closed-minded, one track mind mentality of sending their best to ND. 

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

-1 HS
CTBuckeye's picture

Love the atmosphere that Urban is creating - it's not just helping recruiting in the short-term, but building an atmosphere that the entire program can thrive in for the forseeable future.  Very excited to see what the next few years bring...

"Because we couldn't go for three"

+1 HS
fear_the_nut70's picture

Looks like Stacey Elliot is an ambassador for the program.  He travelled to Nati on his own dime and often comes to Columbus to talk with recruits' fathers.  Good story at

funtubs's picture

I don't know about you guys, but ever since I visited OSU for the first time I can feel the family atmosphere. I think its not only that the players are family but the university at a whole brings together the players with the students, staff, and alumni.

Zaphod Beeblebrox's picture

I went to at least one game every year at The Shoe from '84 to '05 and followed the Buckeyes to MSU, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Wisconsin, PSU, Minnesota & meeeechegan.  And I will always miss Fall Saturday's at Ohio Stadium.

+1 HS
bleedscarlet's picture

Great article!!! One of my best reads on 11W yet...

I wonder if Meyer didn't sit up in that press box one day and think he could find elite athletes that are quality people and do this shit right. I think he's the kind of man that took the problems his players at UF had as a personal failure and he now knows that building a National Champion isn't enough for him. When he was first hired I was worried about more trouble on the way but he's shown that that will definitely not be the case. Great parents = great kids... keep them involved with the program and they can't go wrong.

Slingin' swag since 1970


+1 HS
QBYBuckeye's picture

August 30th can't get here soon enough. 

New York Buckeye

Rogabone's picture

Damn proud to be a Buckeye. I love the culture there these days.

"Who is that madman?" the new arrival asked St. Peter.

"That's God," St. Peter replied. "But he thinks he's Woody Hayes."

JohnnyKozmo's picture

An article like this makes me think (optimistically, I'll admit) that maybe Urban might be around for longer than a lot of people think.  If he's truly building this family atmosphere, and recruiting high character kids, who also are talented, maybe some of the stress that affected him at UF won't resurface.

It'd be a breath of fresh air to see Urban do what Coach K has done at Duke-which is nothing short of amazing.  There may be more Duke haters than just about any other team not named the Yankees, but Coach K has done it the right way, and has enjoyed incredible success.

Pain don't hurt-Dalton

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

Love hearing that EZE's family is helping out with the recruiting and talking with young kids.  That just goes to show that if that is happening then the family values aspect is very high in the program.  Great read!

Go Bucks!

+1 HS